The Placa Palace, or How to Get Your New License Plates in Costa Rica

CR License plateWe got our new license plates. To most people they are  almost indistinguishable from our old license plates, but notice, please, a small Costa Rican flag in the upper right corner, and a nearly invisible map of the country in the lower right corner. There is also a vertical line on the left. That’s it. The number is the same.

We heard, or more probably read, that every car in the country was going to have to get new plates. Come December, when the entire country has to get new tags for their cars, the government announced they would not issue the 2013 marchamos without new plates.

I called the Registro Nacional a few weeks ago and asked about the process. No, they could not do it by Internet. No, I would have to come to the office in San José personally and pick up the new plates. No, no one could do it for me. I needed to appear and present my documents, papers for the truck, and the plates.

The idea of the entire country’s driving population traipsing through the Registro was frightening enough, but I knew if we put this off until the fall there would be lines around the block. Any little thing wrong with the paperwork, and it would be two trips, or most probably three. So, we went last week.

The first thing that went wrong was my fault. I admit it, I forgot to bring a copy of the corporation paperwork that the truck is registered under. It’s complicated, but suffice it to say a lot of Ticos do this to avoid being sued for everything they own. By law an accident victim can only sue the owner, so if the owner is a corporation and the only thing the corporation owns is the car… well, you get the idea.

I solved my stupid error by passing through the Registro’s  brand spanking new document section and retrieving a copy of the corporate papers. I was amazed to note how efficient the place had become since we last visited. I asked several people where I needed to go, followed the trail, and  found orderly lines clearly labeled. More importantly, there were plenty of clerks to help so I retrieved the papers in no time.

Then it was on to the Placa Palace, or where we needed to get the new license plates, also called placas. Again the lines weren’t bad and I managed to get through the first steps and paid for the stamps. (Always in bureaucratic countries, it’s the stamps.) Armed with these I approached the window of step number three. A very kind man looked over my documents and then beckoned me with one finger to lean into the slit in the bullet-proof glass. “We have a problem,” he said. “The corporate papers have a passport number that does not correspond to the one you gave me.”

Then I remembered. “Oh, that passport expired and the Untied States issued me a new one with a different number.”

He shrugged. “You will have to get a certified letter from your lawyer stating that you used to have that passport number, but now you have a different one.”  And bless him, he typed up exactly what I would need and sent me on my way.

I called our lawyer who was at the Legislative Assembly. I figured whatever she was doing, it was probably more important that our plates. But we agreed to have dinner that night, she would bring her computer and printer and we’d get the paperwork done.

At dinner she realized we needed to change the corporation paperwork to show our new identification. This involved a second lawyer who would draft the new paperwork and would have it for us by noon the following day, just in time to have lunch.

At two-thirty the following day, we still had not gotten back to the Registro. She had to pick up her assistant, who coincidentally was accompanying her kindergartener on a field trip, the second lawyer was late, and lunch was bad.

There are times in this country when it’s best to let go and just accept that things will either get done or they won’t. This was one of those. At one point my husband asked, “What the hell are we doing?” To which I answered that I hadn’t a clue.

Eventually, and in typical Tico fashion, we arrived at the Registro an hour and a half before they closed for the weekend. Our lawyer’s assistant accompanied us to the window where we were told that the letter she’d written was incorrect.

Turned back again.

The assistant got on his phone and called our lawyer at her office. She typed up another document and drove it over. Armed with this, we went back to the window, and eventually got our plates five minutes after closing time.

So, it might not seem like much, but it was an accomplishment.

Adam Gopnik, who, in his wonderful book, Paris to the Moon, describes the average Parisian’s encounter with the never-ending bureaucracies, which invade daily life. He says, “Each Ministry is a bit like a Nautilus machine, designed to give maximum resistance to your efforts, only to give way just at the moment of total mental failure.”

And I noted in the time we waited for our plates that at 15,000 colones ($30.00) a vehicle, by the time all registered vehicles have paid, it will pay off the new remodel of the Registro Nacional. Brilliant. I do not know who Dale Dauten is, but he apparently said, “Bureaucracy gives birth to itself and then expects maternity benefits.” I feel like a midwife.

So, the good new is, we are all set to get our marchamos in December, and, lo, I can do that by the Internets.


  5 comments for “The Placa Palace, or How to Get Your New License Plates in Costa Rica

  1. 26/06/2012 at 2:40 pm

    Thanks for the great commentary on life there. No matter what the political structure of a place, I guess, there’s a type of acceptance or patience a body must strive for when dealing with stuff like this. Sounds like you kept your sanity.

    • 26/06/2012 at 4:21 pm

      Thanks for stopping by, Deanna. After 20 years I have mellowed, but I have to say it didn’t hurt that I’d seen my acupuncturist the day before and he needled me in the “point of Universal indifference.” I had to laugh out loud when he asked if I’d like him to hit that point. YES, by all means, please needle me there.

  2. 25/06/2012 at 2:04 pm

    It is heartening to learn that other Spanish speaking countries have the same bureaucratic morass. Hope the marchamo comes as easily.
    And I have no idea what a corruption entry is so I, at least, am not offended!
    lizyoung recently posted..CALIMA!My Profile

    • 26/06/2012 at 4:24 pm

      I think this is actually the norm, Liz, and we people from Industrialized countries are the exception. I always ask myself if there isn’t a good piece of writing in the inconvenience of what ever I happen to be doing. It makes it easier if I think of it as research.

  3. 24/06/2012 at 4:05 pm

    For those of you still looking for the corruption entries, I had to take them down. It’s a legal thing. Sorry to lead you on. My life is complicated enough without angering the wrong (or ‘right’) people.

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